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Traditionally England, like most European societies, was divided into the three estates, the nobility, or those who fought and owned the land, the church, or those who prayed, and the rest, who worked.
The parliament was accordingly divided into the lords temporal, subsequently known as the aristocracy or the “toffs”, the lords spiritual or the bishops, and the commons. Now parliament is divided into two, an upper House of Lords and a lower, elected House of Commons.
With the coming of democracy there has been increasing pressure to reform or even abolish the House of Lords, since much of its membership is hereditary. (That principle also applies to the monarchy.)
The current political moves for reform, although widely supported, have met with right-wing opposition, and been temporarily abandoned.
The word “lord” is itself semantically curious since it comes from Anglo-Saxon “hlafweard”, meaning “guardian of the loaf”, since the lord then provided sustenance to his followers.
During the Middle Ages “lord” became both a term for God and a title of rank, below an earl but above a knight. However, in recent decades the word has lost some of its status, appearing in forms like “druglord” and “warlord”.
l Geoff Hughes is professor emeritus, Wits University.